Friday, October 17, 2008

Life in Lucca Continues...

Okay, so this week I found and moved into the perfect apartment for me. It is in the heart of the city (inside the walls) so I will be able to benefit from the energy and life that is part of Italy and Lucca.

The apartment is in the Piazza Anfiteatro where my friend Serenella had her photos taken by Chico’s magazine a few months ago. It is a really important part of the city and tourists flock to it on a regular basis to marvel at its oval shape and see some of the homes that began to built in 56 B.C. My kitchen, bathroom and sitting room windows all look out onto the piazza.

I was so happy to move out of the bed and breakfast for so many reasons – the main of which is I have finally been able to unpack and have a home I can call my own.

A huge bonus of the apartment is that it is completely furnished. It has a lot of superfluous stuff, but it’s also got some intriguing items in it since the owners also own an antique shop. It has an old bread-kneading trough that looks like a baby crib in the sitting room. I had no idea what it was when I first saw it and have no idea what I will use it for but it makes for a great conversation piece.

I have found that most apartments (unfurnished) are approximately 100 Euros for every 10 mq (100 square feet) and since this one is furnished and 90-100 mq (900-1000 square feet) I am getting a bargain for 800 Euros per month. As the dollar went up in value and the Euro went down this week, it will run me approximately $1065 per month.

The entry door to the building is very old and the inside foyer and stairs are made of very old cement, bricks and metal fittings that were used to keep the formed concrete in place. It’s quite scary walking up the stairwell, however there is plenty of lighting so I don’t have to worry about tripping and falling. Of course, because of the time this apartment was built, there were absolutely no elevators.

To maintain the integrity of the building, all the electrical and heating elements have been carefully placed inside the walls in copper conduit rather than digging into the structure. Many walls inside the apartment have the original brick exposed so as to see the construction. It’s quite intriguing. There are many different sizes of bricks and stones and old mortar. All the ceilings have the original beautiful wooden beams and the ceillings are approximately 10-11 feet tall.

The landlords of my flat are wonderful. Their antique store is a few doors down from the apartment and Antonella, the wife, actually came to the B&B the day I moved to not only pick me up with all my luggage and dogs in tow, but also help me move everything down the three flights of stairs to her truck! She greeted me with a smile, complete makeup and stilettos all at 8:30 in the morning! I don’t know how these Italian women do it…

That has been one adjustment that has been a little difficult for me. Coming from Menifee (and southern California) I am used to being much more relaxed in my attire. I wouldn’t be caught dead now going outside to walk the dogs without my nice shoes, jeans and a jacket. I draw the line at makeup first thing in the morning, though, because the poor dogs would probably go to the bathroom on my floor while they waited for me to finish.

I had an interesting experience a few days ago. I saw what would be the equivalent of our checkpoint. The carabinieri (policeman) actually stood by the side of the street with a stick with a stop sign affixed to it, randomly waving it in front of cars that he thought should stop. He and his partner would then run the registration and information from their vehicle and, if everything was okay, they’d let the driver continue on. At the time, I happened to be sitting in the park with my dogs watching everything happen while enjoying gelato – one flavor with pinenuts, the other with pistacchios.

Last Friday I also got the wonderful news that my remaining boxes arrived with NO EXTRA CUSTOMS FEES! I guess whatever we wrote on the Customs forms was accepted and they delivered them with no questions asked. The first thing I did was get my little dog basket out that fits on the bicycle and Marco helped to install it. I spent the evening riding around the fortress walls with one girl in the front basket and one in the back basket.

It was a little unwieldly at first to ride in a straight line with both girls in tow, but I soon figured it out and was weaving through the throngs of people like the rest of the natives. The girls seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride.

I don’t think I mentioned how loud it is here. I am used to the serene quiet of my Menifee home (with the exception of a few golf balls hitting the house once in a while). Well, the noises rarely stop because I am, after all, now living in a city with all the city noises that come along with that. The girls are having a tough time relaxing because just as they do, along comes a new noise. They’re favorite is the neighbor cat meowing to be let in next door. I’m glad they’re short or they’d probably jump out the window to get at it.

The Italians love children and any kind of pet. I think the Italians love their children to remain children their entire lives as I’ve seen many 5-6 year olds still nursing on a bottle or sucking a pacifier. They all seem to be cuddled and spoiled, yet they are (so far) remarkably pleasant to be around. All of them love the girls and stop and pet them.

My friend John from Menifee happened to come to Pisa for business this week and was kind enough to bring a suitcase full of my things with him. My son packed the things I asked for and threw in a few others he thought I might want. It was fun to open it and see what was included – kind of like an early Christmas. I had dinner with John and his boss that evening and it was nice to be able to speak complete sentences in the correct tense. They seemed to really enjoy Lucca and it was fun to see them experience a taste of what I’ve been able to live the past few weeks.

Most of this week has been spent unpacking and buying food items and things I need for the apartment. I visited another rustico (old villa) in Montecarlo with Luca and Marco that is being purchased by a Danish man who will, hopefully, want me to assist him with the remodel. I’ve also been patiently and quickly trying to complete my permesso di soggiorno which is my permit to stay in Italy. I have to complete it within eight days of moving into the apartment and can only process it through a few post offices in the vicinity. Of course, it is only in Italian so my translation lessons continue…

I posted this blog by using an internet “key” that you purchase from the local telefonino (cell phone) shop. It’s quite handy. You just plug it into a USB port and are in business. After purchasing the key, you pay 25 Euros a month for 100 hours of internet connectivity. At the end of the month, you renew the access again at the store. Thank goodness it’s near my apartment.

I met another woman this week who owns a high-end furniture business and wants to collaborate with me on business. I also visited Elisabetta’s fabric shop again yesterday to see all the new products that arrived. I can hardly wait to begin actively working since I seem to have caught up on my sleep. Now, if my poor feet and legs can just get used to all these hard surfaces…

A presto!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life in Lucca - Week One

What a whirlwind and chaotic ride these past few months have been since I decided to move to Lucca, Italy! Lots of ups and downs but the end result has been wonderful so far.

My son Jeff and daughter-in-law Kandy took off work so they could take me, my four large suitcases and crate with two dogs to LAX on September 29, only to find out the flight had been delayed for two hours. This was actually a blessing for several reasons. The first was that I got to spend more time with Jeff and Kandy and also got to take the dogs out of the crate for a nice long walk to tire them out before our 12-hour flight to Rome. Another reason was that after I arrived in Rome, my layover to Pisa was only two hours rather than four.

After paying approximately $800 extra for the two dogs, two extra suitcases and over-the-limit luggage, I boarded and was off on my new adventure. Thankfully, no one was sitting next to me on the flight from LAX to Rome so I got to lie down for part of the trip. Alitalia, like most airlines, has cut back tremendously on anything considered frivolous, so we went for about 10 hours between meals or even an offer to bring a glass of water. We received dinner during the first hour after take-off and breakfast during the last 45 minutes before landing. The flight was 12 hours from LAX to Rome.

After searching frantically all over the airport in Rome, I found little children petting and loving my dogs over in the large-baggage area. After making sure the girls were okay and taking them to the bathroom and giving them some extra attention and love, I had to check them back into cargo for our next leg of the trip – Rome to Pisa. I wanted to call my friend Samanta to let her know I would be arriving in Pisa on time but could not get any phone to work. Thankfully, a nice young Italian man offered me the use of his cell phone so I was able to alert her to my arrival.

When I arrived in Pisa, I had another handsome young Italian man offer to assist me with my two trolleys of luggage so that I could get out of the baggage area without too much trouble. Samanta was waiting for me with a gorgeous smile and kisses for me and the girls. With much trouble, we were able to pack everything into her little car and leave for Lucca (about a 20 minute drive). We arrived at the bed and breakfast and, of course, since it is in a former palace that was built many hundreds of years ago, we had to schlep everything up three very large flights of stairs to my room.

My room was nice and clean, however, the shower is one of the smallest I have ever seen and I've seen a lot since I've been to Italy often in the past. It has these small wires that fan out and are supposed to hold up the shower curtain and when you try to close them they just keep popping open again. Then, when I took a shower the curtain clogged up the drain and there was water everywhere.

The next day when I returned to the room, it was in the same condition as I left it. I was wondering why they hadn’t cleaned it and saw a sign on the door that said cleaning is extra! I spoke with the young woman who runs the place and she said they change towels every three days and clean the room and change sheets once a week. Since I arrived on Tuesday evening, I had to wait until yesterday (Monday) for clean sheets.

The girls and I got settled in and I slept for 14 hours the first night. The past few months has been a huge drain on my energy and psyche dealing with everything I've had to do and doing it for the most part all on my own. Now that I'm here, I'm enjoying a little rest and relaxation and also running back and forth across Lucca buying electronic things that will work here and meeting people.

Everyone has been very lovely since I’ve arrived. I'm lucky enough to know quite a few friends already and have met many more through my friend Serenella.

I spent the first few days searching for apartments and meeting up with friends and potential business partners. The first thing I had to do was purchase a cell phone so I could be available at a moment’s notice for coffee or an appointment. Then, of course, the beauty items were essential – a new hair dryer and flat iron that work on this electrical current.

On Wednesday, I met with the young textile designer Elisabetta who was thrilled that I had arrived. She invited me to dinner at her home with another friend, Simone (male), and her son Philippo. She asked me to bring the girls along because she really wants a dog and wanted her son to play with them. Dinner was spectacular – a local type of pasta known only in this region topped by my favorite – pesto! This was followed by some sort of fish that was steamed in a foil packet with vegetables and a wonderful white wine. Simone and Philippo left to get three kinds of gelato and some cookies that were out of this world.

The good thing is I’ve been walking a minimum of 5 miles a day since my bed and breakfast is just outside the city walls. That way, I am burning off many more calories than I am taking in.

My typical day is as follows:

* Sleep for at least 10 hours every night (very abnormal for me).
* Take the dogs out to the local park
* Meet someone for coffee and pasticerrie (pastry).
* walk around a lot and meet people or just walk around a lot.
* Come back to the hotel and walk the dogs.
* Return to Lucca for the passegiata where everyone walks around a lot and have dinner (or have dinner before I leave the hotel (unheard of!).
* Return to the B&B to walk the dogs again and have another night of sleep.

Now, this isn’t typical for the Lucchesi. After I find an apartment and a job this routine will definitely change. Most people get up early and are out the door by the time I am waking up. They go to work and if they’re lucky, they have a break in the middle of the day (1:00 to 4:00 or 4:30 when everything closes down) and then back to the city for the passegiata, followed by a dinner that is at least 3-4 hours long. I am still adapting to this schedule and have been trying to catch up on my rest in between meeting people and seeing apartments and other things.

I got to go with Luca (the businessman who has been a godsend to me since I arrived) to see a lovely villa that I hope to be remodeling soon. I pretended that I was a buyer since the real buyer was stuck in South Africa and couldn’t make it. It was very beautiful and was built at least 1,000 years ago and the old farmhouses definitely look it. Nevertheless, they were beautiful and the villa manager had us walk across the planks on the second floor so we wouldn’t fall through to the bottom. The walls were built so amazingly well and I could imagine so many possibilities if I get a chance to help with the remodel. I would definitely keep the exterior structure in place and fill in the walls with a thick glass or something so as to retain the beauty.

The villa itself was a little trippy with all the Trompe L’oleil everywhere. The previous owners obviously had a thing for birds and they were painted on every wall. They also painted draperies on lots of the walls and every room had its own color scheme. I would rip everything out and start over – yeah, I know…you think I’m crazy but really…it was over the top. What was really cool is there was one section that had remained intact that you could open to reveal the original fresco that was painted at least a thousand years ago!

Outside, there was a lovely portico and we got to tour the old kitchen and refrigerator areas of the outbuildings. The refrigerator was literally an old tunnel of bricks that ended in a larger area of bricks where food would stay cool in the summer and cold in the winter. The kitchen included an original pizza oven that was extraordinary. I would like nothing better than to be a part of the reconstruction and remodel of this place. It is the main reason of why I moved here.

Elisabetta introduced me to a young land developer who wants me to work at his architectural firm. Interior designers work for these types of firms in Italy. Luca also introduced me to the architectural firm that he uses and highly recommended me to them. Elisabetta also showed me some beautiful window treatments her company made for the land developer and said she was eager for me to help her with these as soon as possible. It’s so nice to be made to feel important. I am definitely the exception rather than the rule here and am introduced as a “veep” – Very Important Person. Luca said that the Lucchesi are not quick to change their customs but he hopes he and I will be trailblazers in this regard. I hope so, too.

So, back to the apartment hunting. I saw the most ideal apartment ever a couple of days ago. It is on the third floor (with no elevator) and is on three levels once you arrive at the front door. The bottom floor is a beautiful master bedroom with a large wardrobe and full bath which includes a shower, bathtub, toilet and bidet.

The second floor has a really large living room with attached kitchen and dining room. It also includes a very large terrace for my dogs. From this terrace I would have almost a panoramic view of the city. Bellisima! The third floor has another bedroom and another full bath. All these things are unheard of in Lucca. The price tag is also out of my range, however Luca has an appointment with the owner for tomorrow night (Wednesday) to see if he can get her to come down in the price.

I saw another apartment the following day that is on the fourth floor (also no elevator – yikes!). It is in the Piazza Napoleone where just about everything happens in Lucca. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing but it’s really a nice apartment with a separate bedroom and bath also. Both apartments also have a dishwasher and washing machine (also unheard of). They are also both furnished which would be great for me since I no longer have any.

The rest of the week has been spent having coffee with friends and visiting other villas with other friends. I got to see Morena last night, who is one of the most vivacious Italian women I have ever met. I originally met her back in 2005 on my second trip to Italy. She was our villa manager.

Morena picked me up at the local train station and took me out to a farmhouse she wants me to rent instead of living in the city. The problem with most of the places I’ve seen (with the exception of the two mentioned above) is that in the spring come the tourists and all the prices for places are raised considerably. This would be the case for the farmhouse as well.

There are also the special events that happen in Lucca quite often. The next is a weekend of comedy and all the hotels are booked. I need to find a place before October 25 or I might be on the street somewhere. I have faith that something will happen quickly. I look forward to the day I can put everything away and say I have a home of my own again.

Did I mention I bought a bike? It’s a necessity for Lucca. After walking a minimum of 5-10 miles a day the first few days, I decided to invest in a used one. Luca and Marco (his partner) followed me over the bike shop to make sure the guy (Poli) took care of me and didn’t overcharge me. They also insisted that he include a new basket for the back so I could have one for each dog. What Luca doesn’t know, is Paulie charged me for it when I returned…non buon, Poli!

So, today (Tuesday) on my 7th day in Lucca, I went to the local lavanderia (laundromat). What a unique experience. I rode my bicycle over with all my dirty laundry and since everything was in Italian, I couldn’t figure anything out. It’s very different here and one of the few things that is much more modern than in America. The soap, disinfectant and fabric softener are already included when you wash so you just have to put your money into a central machine (like at our gas stations), push the number of the washer or dryer, and it automatically starts. There’s even a really nice ironing station area where you can iron your underwear (like they do here). I put in one Euro and got to iron for 15 minutes! What was weird is that the ironing board got hot – not the iron. I kept touching the iron to see when I could begin ironing and when I placed my blouse on the board, I realized it was hot instead.

Okay, I think I’ve gone on and on about this week and probably bored half of you to death with my ramblings so I’ll sign off for now.

Ciao dalla Lucca!